MACCIH: Catalyzing Honduran Institutional Reform?

The Northern Triangle of Central America, consisting of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, suffers from weak and often failing judicial and law enforcement systems. Whether overpowered by the forces of organized crime and gangs or merely affected by a lack of judicial independence, these countries experience extremely high impunity rates and an overall lack of public faith in the legal and judicial systems. Guatemala has made steps toward progress thanks to recent measures including the establishment of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and now Honduras is taking action to combat its debilitating corruption, widespread impunity, and growing public dissatisfaction. The United States and other key donors in the region should enthusiastically support these efforts, as improved governance in Central America is essential in order to promote security in the Americas region and beyond.

Honduras returned to the Organization of American States (OAS) just five years ago, following sanctions for the 2009 coup d’état that expelled President Jose Manuel Zelaya from power. Current President Juan Orlando Hernandez will now have the opportunity to work closely with the OAS in promoting justice in Honduras through a new OAS-backed tool: The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, known by its Spanish acronym, MACCIH.

The establishment of MACCIH, an independent international body, to conduct investigations is an important step in the right direction. Ranking 126 out of 175 in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of 2014, Honduras has one of the highest levels of corruption and impunity in the region. Transparency International , the global organization that hosts the CPI each year, welcomed the creation of MACCIH. Though rates of violence have declined in recent years, Honduras still has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and only 4 percent of murder cases are solved, according to government data. MACCIH has the authority to oversee, provide technical assistance to, and evaluate the performance of Honduran institutions with the authority to charge individuals for corruption, but no direct ability to charge officials without the support of domestic bodies. While many worry about a potential lack of domestic control of MACCIH, the role of international lawyers, judges, and other staff that form the anticorruption body will be limited to consulting and advising Honduran authorities.

MACCIH hopes to emulate the success of a similar institution in neighboring Guatemala, the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. CICIG was launched in 2007 and has carried out more than 204 investigations involving 161 government officials and 33 criminal organizations. CICIG’s investigation led to the prosecution of former Guatemalan president Otto Perez and his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Charged with customs fraud, Perez and Baldetti resigned last year and remain in jail awaiting trial. It is noteworthy that the CICIG agreement took three years to finalize, while MACCIH—with full support from the president of Honduras—was signed in only six months.

MACCIH follows CICIG’s basic model in many ways. MACCIH will have full access to official documents and public records to help with the investigation and prosecution of cases involving corrupt networks. It will also select the cases in which it will cooperate. Unlike CICIG, MACCIH cannot act as co-plaintiff before local courts or promote disciplinary processes against government or judicial officials who refuse to collaborate. It remains to be seen whether MACCIH will be able to show clout once it is implemented and if it possesses the necessary “teeth” to bring about change. MACCIH, although potentially less powerful than its Guatemalan counterpart, still aims to provide support to develop new investigative and institutional capacities in Honduras.

Many prominent institutions have applauded MACCIH’s creation; the International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that MACCIH will strengthen the institutions required to attract foreign investment, and the U.S. State Department welcomed the designation of Juan Jimenez, former Peruvian prime minister and a recognized corruption expert, as the head of the mission. The United States should take advantage of this momentum and support the fight against high levels of corruption and impunity that may be deterring private investment capable of creating jobs in the region; with irregular migration from Central America remaining a significant humanitarian issue, facilitating prosperity in Honduras should be a U.S. priority.

The United States, Canada, and other bilateral donors in the region should provide support for the implementation of MACCIH. CICIG was sponsored by the United Nations and has received a total of $36 million from the United States. Given the successful prosecution of high-level politicians and others in Guatemala because of the action of CICIG, the money invested by the United States, Canada and others has been money well spent. MACCIH is sponsored by the OAS, with an initial mandate of four years and is currently seeking similar levels of funding: $32 million from OAS member states with much of the burden on the United States and Canada. Given CICIG’s track record on combating institutional corruption and given the backing of OAS, the United States and Canada should provide political, diplomatic, and financial support to ensure that MACCIH succeeds. Due to the Northern Triangle’s strategic location, it is in the interest of the United States and our regional partners to work toward improved security and prosperity in Honduras and the surrounding countries. MACCIH should be supported in conjunction with the economic efforts that will stem from the Alliance for Prosperity, a regional plan that provides a framework for spurring economic growth in the Northern Triangle.

The creation of MACCIH is just the beginning, as important details remain unclear: the new commission must be allowed to work independently without political interference and be allowed to choose and initiate which cases to investigate. MACCIH requires access to information and full cooperation from local public authorities and civil society in order to be efficient, transparent, and hold Honduran government officials accountable for their actions. There is some room for skepticism on whether MACCIH would have sufficient independence from the Honduran government, and there are various outside influences that could potentially distort high-profile investigations. In spite of the risks, the United States should support the implementation and funding of MACCIH as it has the chance to build institutional capacities while improving the justice system of Honduras.

The United States has an inconsistent relationship with Central America—we focus on the region during crisis, but tend to turn away prior to helping solidify long-term progress. The last half-century can be summarized by peaks of focus followed by long periods of inattention. The United States has a renewed interest in the root causes of poverty and citizen insecurity in the Northern Triangle following the sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border in 2014. This has been the catalyst for significant financial support from the United States to confront poverty and insecurity, and weak judicial systems are widely recognized as one of the top problems in the region. Historically, judicial reforms in developing countries are difficult to carry out and take a long time to demonstrate results. CICIG was a significant innovation and has delivered results in the context of Guatemala, demonstrating that money from the United States and Canada was well spent. MACCIH deserves the chance to demonstrate similar results in Honduras and should be supported and strengthened by U.S. involvement.

Daniel F. Runde is director of the Project on Prosperity and Development and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Moises Rendon is an intern with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program